Sunday, February 20, 2011

Netflix Queue: 'The Twilight Samurai'

Three quick thoughts about 'The Twilight Samurai':

* This sweet, slow, and elegaic film focuses on Seibei Iguchi, a low-ranking samurai at the end of the samurai era. He is poor and dirty, loves his daughters and even encourages them to study books(!!), but serves out ancient obligations to his sponsoring clan. Because his clan is mostly at peace--until the end of the film--he and his fellow samurai have little to do; they serve as clerks and accountants instead, rarely drawing their swords in anger. Given this film was made in 2002, a few years into Japan's real-life "lost decade" of recession, it's not difficult to read his situation as an allegory of Iguchi's modern-day countrymen living lives as semi-neutered "salarymen" torn between past glories and current duties.

* The presence of women in this film is what makes it unusual, at least from my experience of samurai movie watching. In both Japanese and American action movies, we tend to like our sword- and gun-slingers somewhat ascetic, stoic, and bordering on chaste. Their deepest emotional attachments tend to be with other men--or, if with women, doomed. (Make of that what you will.) But Iguchi's love for his daughters shapes his other actions in this movie--and not in the usual "I've got to get vengeance for them or protect them from a threat" kind of way. That makes him a different kind of hero, actually vulnerable instead of movie vulnerable. And that's what draws us in, even if the pacing seems to drag a bit at times.

* In the end, Iguchi must strap on his swords and have a climactic battle. Though 'The Last Samurai' has an elegaic feel to it, it seems that here is where we're given permission not to mourn what has passed. Iguchi and his opponent do not fight for their own honor, or freedom, or anything noble. They're each performing the assignments they've been given--"You're an errand boy. I've been an errand boy too," his opponent says--in order to keep the pillars of Japanese feudal society in place. The fighting is messy, inelegant, fought by two complicated humans instead of Good Guy and Bad Guy. The fight and the film end on a bittersweet note, then: We are the warrior-protagonists in our own lives, and if the battles we're sent to fight are sometimes less-than-noble, or even outright incomprehensible, there's still an honor to be found in fighting the best we can, and in finding comfort in the ones we love.

No comments: